On the south side of the visitor center lodge sits a long, narrow cedar-sided shed. It holds a reminder of a once-thriving (though illegal) occupation in the Chesapeake Bay area known as ‘outlaw gunners.’ Our artifact is a gunning skiff, and it has a long but well-documented history from several places on the Eastern Shore. It’s in rough condition, but experts recommended that it not be “restored’ but allowed to be exhibited in its final state.
The story begins in 2009 when the skiff was discovered in a long unused shed on a closed section of the Refuge. It was moved to a secure building, and the hunt was on to determine its origins and why it was on the Refuge grounds. Eventually, then-Friends President Gren Whitman went to the best source of knowledge about such boats, Pete Lesher, the curator of collections at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland. Lesher said it was probably built by Ira Hudson (1873-1949) of Chincoteague, Virginia, who was “a highly respected decoy carver who also is known to have built boats” in the 1910s and ‘20s.
Then the skiff sat and sat…until early in 2012 when board member Melissa Baile and long-time Refuge volunteer Terry Willis proposed building a shed to display it properly. The Friends board agreed to fund the project, and the work began. Then, other details about the skiff began to come to light. After reading an article about the project in an Easton newspaper, Joe Walsh, son of Dr. Harry Walsh, the author of The Outlaw Gunner (a book about ‘outlaw’ or ‘market gunners’ – which is available in the Eastern Neck bookstore – in which a picture of the skiff appears on page 116) contacted us and told us he was almost certain that our skiff had once been part of his father’s extensive waterfowl-hunting collection. He confirmed Lesher’s notion that it was built by Hudson, in 1917. But it somehow ‘disappeared’ from the collection in the early 1960s.
So how did it get to the Refuge? It appears that Dr. Walsh donated it to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge for a museum they intended to build – but never did. Another contact solved the final mystery: Rock Hall resident Ron Fithian’s father in-law, Kenneth Fletcher, Sr., was a USFWS employee at the Refuge in the 1960s. He said he had been instructed to truck the skiff from Chincoteague to Eastern Neck sometime in the ‘60s, although he wasn’t sure why. He recalled storing it in the shed where is was ‘discovered’ over 40 years later. End of mystery!
The skiff and shed were dedicated on October 20, 2012, with members of the Walsh family present to tell the skiff’s story for one last time and cut the ribbon to officially open the site. A permanent marker in front of the shed tells the story about market gunners who used many skiffs like ours, and we’re proud to have preserved this piece of Chesapeake Bay history.
Story by Leann Miller